Novel Without a Name

by Thu Huong Duong

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What are the main themes of Novel Without A Name?

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Novel Without a Name is about a newspaper editor who is tired of writing propaganda, and the only way he can preserve his integrity is to leave Vietnam. He sends his wife and daughter to live in the United States while he stays behind to continue to work until he can escape. The main character narrates his story from inside a prison cell in Saigon, after being captured by South Vietnamese forces because of his anti-government views. He uses flashbacks and descriptions of newspaper articles that he writes for extra money to fill in details about his life before the fall of Saigon, as well as some of the events leading up to it.

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Novel Without a Name by Duong Thu Huong (and translated by Nina McPherson and Phan Huy Duong) was published in 1995. The novel is set during the Vietnam war and the protagonist is Quan, a 28-year-old solider in the North Vietnamese army. Quan looks much older than his years, due to poor living conditions, malnutrition and various illnesses that have plagued him and his fellow soldiers during their tenure in the army.

Quan recalls his early days as a soldier, when he was a young and idealistic member of the Communist party. As Quan reminisces about that era, he remembers his thoughts the time:

This war was not simply another war against foreign aggression, it was also our chance for a resurrection. Vietnam had been chosen by History: After the war, our country would become humanity's paradise. Our people would hold a rank apart. At last we would be respected, honored, revered.

Now, however, he has become terribly disenchanted and weary as the war has raged on. Quan's disgust increases when he discovers that his childhood friend—Bien—once a strapping, confident young man, has gone mad. After this encounter, Quan is granted leave so he may make a trip to his village. There, he visits his girlfriend, who—like Bien—is also forced to live in scandal and solitude, having been impregnated by an unnamed man.

One of the main points in the novel is that war is a sadly common experience. Even though Novel Without a Name is specifically about the conflict in Southeast Asia, the author seems to assert that the nature of war is—sadly—universal.

Another theme is the loss of innocence and the realization that everything that Quan has been fighting for—for almost half of his life—might be nothing but hype and brainwashing by the Communist party. After so many years of fighting—with no real end in sight—Quan is too exhausted and overwhelmed to think about anything other than surviving day-to-day.

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The overriding theme in Novel Without A Name is the futility of war and its effect on ALL its victims. There is a political thread running through the novel and Quan, the narrator whose struggles are the subject of the story, is disillusioned, feels he's been fooled by his "Comrades" and knows he has lost everything precious to him. War changes everybody. Quan feels something in himself that scares him and that he feels powerless to control;

 “From the depths of my pain, a wave of rage overcame me. I felt it rise in me, the fever of combat, the hatred, the irrepressible desire to kill, to annihilate, like a fire sweeping through my body, my brain…I stopped, terrified, unable to control the urge to destroy that had ravished me.”

His youthful innocence is lost and the poignancy of it can be felt when he returns home to find a father who has betrayed his family and a disgraced girlfriend. This compounds the complete betrayal by the military forces.

Tied into the theme of innocence are Quan's vivid memories and his longing for his mother's presence and his fond memories of his younger brother.

The war is supposed to release the Vietnamese, empower them with " the beauty of all its moments of fire and blood"  ensuring they have control but it has done the opposite. When he joined the army, he and his friends  were "intoxicated by hatred”  for the enemy and had a vision of glory and patriotism; but no longer.

Quan's realization that he, and others like him, are pawns, mere puppets, comes when he overhears two members of "the Party " talking and Quan can see how manipulated the people are with "eyes opened wide in fear and adoration (who)... wait for the signal to jump into the fire, into hell… I am one of them."

He does not know if life will ever have real meaning again.

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What is a central theme in Novel Without a Name?  

A central theme of the novel is the enormous gap between the romanticized view of war and its grim realities. Over the course of the book, Quan comes to realize that war is not an heroic struggle for freedom, as the authorities would have him believe, but a brutal, de-humanizing bloodbath which degrades and destroys.

Quan has been taught to hate Americans for what they've done to his country, but because of his experiences of war, he comes to see them in a completely different light. The American soldiers, no less than their Vietnamese opponents, have been exploited by their superiors, led into a conflict which is ultimately not in their best interests.

It may come as a surprise to find that a foot soldier in the North Vietnamese army should have the same experience of war as many of his American counterparts. Yet this only serves to underline the universality of the book's overriding theme: that no one nation or culture is immune from the temptation to glorify war and to overlook its horrifying reality.

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